ABCs of Smart Classrooms
There has been a lot of buzz about smart classroom technology, from claims
that it will eliminate all technical problems related to the classroom interface
to charges that it is merely packaging. So it is useful to take a few steps
back and ask some basic questions about this trend: What exactly makes a classroom
smart? Or smart enough? What are some of the tricks to taking an empty room
and turning it into a rich learning environment? What about renovating existing
classrooms into smart ones?
Since it seems that every campus is in the midst of a smart revolution, we’ve
asked some campus experts for their tips on how best to accomplish the transformation.
Don’t put the (AV) cart before the horse. Make sure faculty buy into the
new technology and receive some training in advance. No one wants to be told
that they have to revise a lecture presentation (from chalk to Web) overnight.
Says Charles Johnstone, the AV specialist at the National Technical Institute
for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, “We started with a parallel
course of renovating a small number of classrooms [while initiating] an intensive
training effort for faculty on how to migrate their conventional delivery methods
to the most up-to-date uses of technology. Participation [in the workshops]
was voluntary but over 85 percent of our faculty jumped in over a period of
Johnstone hints that a relevant incentive may boost instructor interest. "As
a 'graduation gift,' each workshop participant was given their choice
of a new Mac or PC laptop which can be interfaced with the technology designed
into the smart spaces."
Be flexible. At a small college, for instance, it may not be necessary to order
a suite of identically configured smart rooms. Don’t sh'ehorn the latest
technology into a situation that d'esn’t warrant it. "At Oberlin,
there's a real sense of individuality and diversity,” says Gary Kornblith,
historian of the Industrial Revolution and former director of the college’s
OCTET (Oberlin Center for Technologically Enhanced Learning). "Faculty
don’t want to be told how to teach. We felt it was important to offer a
choice of environments, various approaches to teaching with technology."
Keep it simple. Buy the technology you need and don’t over-engineer the
smart room. Kornblith notes that the Oberlin electronic seminar room was simple,
and therefore very easy to manage. "The wireless technology didn’t
let us down," he says. “We never had to fall back on our stash of cables. And [taking basic precautions] we never had any theft."
On the other hand, a larger college or university may find it best to go with
a large-scale uniform approach to smart classrooms. Wake Forest University,
for instance, requires its students to have laptop computers, and has outfitted
98 percent of its 140 classrooms with identical AMX touch panel controls and
a laundry list of hardware and software offerings.
Some schools are going with a tiered approach that allows them to create a
few designated types of rooms rather than dozens of different configurations.
Fordham University has three levels of smart classrooms: general purpose, multi-purpose,
and high-end. Level Three classrooms are used for multimedia lectures and presentations.
These classrooms include all of the A/V equipment available in Level One and
Two classrooms, plus a state-of-the-art sound system and fixed seating equipped
with electrical and data outlets. At each seat, students can plug in a notebook
PC for intranet and Internet access. Level Three classrooms also feature sound
amplification and video conferencing capabilities.
The University of Wisconsin Milwaukee likewise has a multi-tiered approach,
from the basic classroom that includes only an overhead projector and screen
to a full-service distance learning room featuring video and audio conferencing
and cameras. The trick is knowing the likely function of each room before designing
a technology plan.
Design the smart classroom for the people who will teach and learn in it. The
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee's Classroom Support Manager Jon Polek
says it's critical that both instructors and instructional technologists
be involved in planning the smart classroom. "In some cases at a state
university, the state bids out the contract to an AV consultant, who makes all
of the decisions," says Polek. That group may or may not know much about
basic teaching and learning issues. "It's really important that faculty
be consulted about such things as the technology to be used and the configuration
of the room. Otherwise, you may have instructors coming to you after everything’s
in place to tell you it's not comfortable to use." A professor may
find himself standing in one spot at a podium and trying to project images to
a screen he can’t even see, for instance.
Also, think about such mundane issues as set up and close down time. Says RIT's
Johnstone, "Because most classes at RIT last only 50 minutes and then have
only a 10-minute class changing period, transition from user-to-user must be
quick, easy, and reliable."
To provide an open-ended opportunity to teach with technology, Oberlin designed
an electronically enhanced seminar room, in which instructors and students use
wireless iBooks to integrate technology into a discussion-based teaching environment
any way they see fit. Anne Trubek, assistant professor of English at Oberlin,
says that in her course, "Technologies of Writing from Plato to the Digital
Age," students welcomed the opportunity to do collaborative writing via
the computer. "They feel empowered by the technology. They are the experts."
Provide support. Make sure there are enough AV or IT specialists on staff to
manage the equipment. The more complex and support intensive the technology,
the more people you will need. In a large auditorium, it makes sense to install
a control room with remote management capabilities. And be available. UWM's
Classroom Support staff is available for planning, implementation, and support
for daily use of the campus's smart classrooms.
Says RIT's Johnstone,"We established a dedicated, full-time group
of first-response 'troubleshooters' who can respond to a problem of
any nature in any of the smart classrooms, labs, and conference rooms. The response
time must be rapid—under 1 minute. We have found that most problems can
be resolved in under 5 minutes or a temporary back-up can be put in place so
the delivery of instruction g'es on with only minor interruption."
Make sure that instructors get the help they need learning to use the technology.
Johnstone adds, "We opened an ‘Educational Technology Resources Room,’
a combination lab, library, and meeting area where faculty and staff can go
to seek assistance developing materials for their courses."
Keep current. Regularly review the quality, currency, and usefulness of the
smart room’s tools. Set up an assessment system to determine what is working
and what isn't. Determine your comfort level with really new technology.
Kornblith notes that Oberlin "wanted to be ahead of the pack but not on
the bleeding edge."
Putting the Smart Into Building Smart Classrooms
One of the fundamental considerations when setting up a smart classroom is the clientele. Who
will use the room? Will it be a production studio for distance learning,
in which there are few, or no students on site, or a sage-on-the-stage
auditorium? What do you do when space and financial limitations mandate
that the room serve many purposes?
Virginia Commonwealth University has done it all, it seems, and successfully, by keeping its
many audiences in mind. Recently, the school renovated a historically
significant antebellum space, the Baruch Auditorium, integrating the latest
technology into the beautiful old building. They've also completed
a cutting edge classroom that is outfitted to serve as a distance learning
forum, production studio, and on site classroom. Each project presented
its own challenges.
Baruch Auditorium, in VCU's Egyptian Building, was built in the 1800s and had not been
renovated since the 1930s. Beautiful and richly detailed in an Egyptian
motif, Baruch posed a special challenge for the group working on the smart
classroom plan. "We had to work around some limitations," says
David Van Nest, director of Media Support Services (MSS) at VCU. "For
instance, since we had to retain the architectural details, we couldn't
drop the ceiling. We also were working with some less-than-ideal sight
lines and acoustic challenges."
MSS decided to build in a surround-sound system that would resolve acoustic gaps. They were able to replace the room's furniture, and so made the best of the room's configuration. They installed a Crestron remote control system
that controls all of the equipment and lighting in the hall, from either
the central podium or the projection room.
That took care of lecture hall needs. But VCU is also ramping up its distance education
mission. According to Sonja Moore, director of Distance Education, VCU's
program is 200 students strong and growing. VCU began with a few degree
programs and is building the course offerings with a plan to reach out
to both in-state and out-of-state students. As a result, MSS is being
told to prepare smart classrooms to be used in the future for distance
education. With that in mind the MSS staff made further renovations to
Baruch Auditorium, including monitors to display remote sites back to
Baruch Hall, and cameras that will allow them to project on-site images
out to the distant students.
VCU is also building new smart classrooms that will serve several masters. The Cabell Multimedia
Classroom was designed to be used three ways: for distance education,
run by a technician with students present; as a basic classroom; and as
a production studio. Starting with a new building was easier than renovating
a 19th century hall and allowed them to create a model smart classroom.
First, they identified the room’s primary use: as a distance learning
studio. The room has full video conferencing capability, including robotic
cameras, plasma screens on pivoting wall mounts for on-site display, push-to-talk
microphones, wall-mounted plasma monitors that allow the instructor to
view local and remote site students, computer with Web connection, and
a document camera. They thought of everything. Says David Van Nest, "We
took into account such issues as background sounds—air hiss and such—that
would be picked up by microphones."
n order to maximize use of the room, it is also available for smart classroom use when it's
not in use for distance learning. In this scenario, instructors can operate
the room’s equipment without the aid of a technician. There is a
ceiling-mounted video/data projector, VCR, motorized projection screen,
and Crestron touch-panel control for all devices, including lighting and
When vacant, the room also serves as a production studio. All furniture is removable. In addition
to the equipment described above, there are professional level production
tools, including remote controlled cameras, an AMP Powerfloor, and acoustically
treated walls. The room is tied into a complete video production room.
Says David Morefield, Multimedia Producer/Director, "There are different concerns when
you’re creating a smart classroom for on-site use and a distance
education space." These issues affect not only what you purchase
for the room, but also how you configure it. "For instance,"
he adds, "We had to make sure that the sight lines would work for
either type of use. In one case, instructors are teaching for television.
In another, they're teaching students sitting right in front of them.
In one case, a person in the control room will determine who sees what
on the screen. In the other, it's all up to the instructor."
For more information, contact David Van Nest at email@example.com.